The tiny Kingdom of Bhutan might be small but it certainly packs a big punch. A country that remained isolated for a long time and only recently has begun to open it’s doors to visitors. This is a country that is deeply enshrined in Buddhism and nature. So much so that it is the first country in the world with specific constitutional obligations on its people to protect the environment. Like the fact that at least 60% of the country must remain under forest cover at all times. This landlocked country sits amongst the giants of China and India and yet it feels like a world away from those powerhouses. Bhutan translates to “Land of the Thunder Dragon” and a real-life dragon is about the only thing missing from the stunning country. With stunning landscapes, historic monasteries and temples, colourful festivals, and some of the friendliest people in the world, it’s a place that is perfect for photography.
Most visits to Bhutan will begin with a stunning flight to Paro. As you descend amongst the mountains you begin to realise how stunning this country is. The impressive Paro Dzong can be seen from the airport and is a good place to start your photography. From across the river, you can get some beautiful blue hour shots of the Dzong especially as it is lit up at night. For an alternative wider angle shot, there are several parts of the roads that run around Paro high in the mountains that offer wonderful views of the Dzong in the distance. The other part of Paro that you should aim to tick off is the main street which is dotted with shops.
The capital of Bhutan is one of only two capital cities in the world that has no traffic lights. When one was installed, there was such an outcry that it was soon removed and replaced with a traffic officer instead. Thimphu certainly deserves a day to capture photos in. If you arrive at the weekend, there will be a market which offers wonderful photo opportunities. The Memorial Chorten is also a great place to photograph people. Be sure to capture the prayer wheels being spun by locals as you enter.
Head up to the great Buddha Dordenma, a gigantic Buddha statue in the mountains offering stunning photo opportunities. As well as stunning views of the capital below in the shadow of imposing mountains. Be sure to add a point of interest into your shot of the big Buddha to give a sense of scale. There’s plenty more to photograph. For example, if you have the time a visit to Changangkha Lhakhang is also worthwhile.
The beautiful town of Punakha sits majestically in the Himalayas of Bhutan. The most famous sight here is the mighty Punakha Dzong. The administrative centre of the district, it sits at the juncture of the Pho and Mo Chu rivers. The Dzong benefits from the picture-perfect setting of a river in front and mountains in the background. Get here late in the afternoon and wait for the blue hour when the Dzong is lit up. Other notable photogenic spots include the Chimi Lhakhang, otherwise known as the temple of ‘divine madman’. No visit to Punakha will be complete without a walk along the Punakha suspension bridge. It is located close to Punakha Dzong and ideally, you should wait around to get a local crossing the bridge to give your photo a point of interest.
If you drive to Punakha from Thimphu you will have to cross Dochula Pass. At over 3,000 meters, the views of the Bhutanese Himalayas are stunning. On a clear day, you will be able to see Gangkhar Puensum, the highest point in Bhutan at 24,840 feet. It is the highest unclimbed mountain in the world. But what really makes Duchula Pass special are the 108 chortens and the thousands of Buddhist prayer flags that dance in the winds. It’s a magical place that is only enhanced if you are lucky enough to capture in the snow.
This vast u-shaped glacial valley is home to the critically endangered Blacked-necked cranes. The valley is also known as Gangtey and is dotted with beautifully colourful farmhouses. This valley is a wonderful spot for landscape photography, bird photography and also to photograph people. Walking along the dirt tracks you shouldn’t be surprised to be approached by locals for a chat or even get invited in for some traditional Bhutanese tea. To capture the best photos of the valley walk up to a high vantage point and shoot the valley in the early morning light. If you are lucky you might get some low mist moving across the valley. Otherwise, late afternoon will also provide good light for photography.
The sacred Gangtey Monastery that sits along the road down to the valley is also a special place for photography. Head inside and capture the monks going about their day. They would be more than happy to have their picture taken.
Trongsa is the capital of Trongsa District in central Bhutan. The main sight here is the huge Trongsa Dzong. It is the largest dzong fortress in Bhutan and arguably the most impressive of them all. As you approach the Trongsa along the mountain road you’ll be gasping in awe when you first set eyes on the Dzong sitting on the edge of the gorge. The best photo spot of the Dzong is from the roadside from across the gorge as you approach Trongsa. Inside the dzong, you will be treated to a labyrinth of passages, courtyards and staircases. The photo opportunities inside the dzong are endless as there will be locals and monks wandering around. If you are lucky enough you may even stumble onto a local festival.
This region is the religious heartland of Bhutan. This is where Buddhism originated in the Kingdom and as such it is home to some of its oldest Buddhist temples and monasteries. Tales of Guru Padmasambhava and the tertons (“religious treasure-discoverers”) still linger in this sacred region. Some of Bhutan’s oldest and most sacred temples are found in Bumthang, including Jambey Lhakhang. According to legend, this ancient temple was built by the Tibetan king Songtsen Gampo in 659 A.D. as part of a chain of 108 simultaneously constructed temples. This was in order to subdue an evil demoness that lay over the Himalayan region. It is the oldest Lhakhang in Bhutan. There are numerous other temples and shrines worth visiting in Bumthang and many of them are linked to Guru Rinpoche’s visit in 746 A.D. Every one of these monasteries and temples offers a slightly different insight and photo opportunities so make sure you visit all of them.
Beyond the temples, this region is also incredibly fertile and covered in fields of buckwheat, rice and potatoes. Apple orchards and dairy farms are also common sights here.
Bhutanese festivals are an incredible sight to witness. Full of colour they usually reenact famous legends with dance and music. There are a whole array of festivals throughout the year and attending one on a visit to Bhutan should be high on your list. Be aware that these festivals are incredibly busy with locals and tourists so make sure you arrive as the doors open to get a good spot for photos. If you have two camera bodies, attach a wide-angle lens to one and a telephoto lens to the other. This will allow you to capture a variety of photos. Set your camera on burst mode and continuous focus. Select a fast shutter speed of 1/200 sec or faster to freeze the action. Don’t forget to take plenty of memory cards and batteries with you. The most famous festivals in Bhutan are:
- Paro Tschechu
- Thimphu Tschechu
- Wangduephodrang Tshechu
- The Punakha Tschechu
- Black-Necked Crane Festival
Archery & Darts
Archery is the national sport of Bhutan. You will find it hard to go through your trip and not witness some people doing archery in villages along the way. A form of darts is also widely played and both make for interesting photo opportunities. If you see people playing simply walking up to them and asking to take photos will be fine. Just be careful not to get in the way. They are using real arrows and they can seriously injure or even cause death.
Tiger’s Nest Monastery
You may think that you’ve had enough of monasteries by this point. But Paro Taktsang is not just any monastery. It is arguably the most impressive of all monasteries anywhere in the world. Clinging to the side of the mountain it is one of the most sought after photo spots in the world. Legend states that Guru Rinpoche arrived in Bhutan by flying on the back of a tigress. He visited several caves and cliff sides in order to meditate and subdue local demons. He spent a large amount of his time on the mountainside above the Paro Valley, sanctifying the place that would later become one of Bhutan’s holiest monasteries. Reached by a two-hour strenuous hike up the side of the mountain, there are only a handful of well-known spots to photograph the monastery from. The best view is from one of the lookout points that sits directly opposite the monastery. Photography is not allowed inside Paro Taktsang so the only possible photos are of the outside.
Bhutan is probably not the first country on most people’s bucket list. But if you visit you will quickly realise why everyone who has come here, says that it is somewhere special. You will not only come back with great memories but also some incredible photos.
Photo credits: Kav Dadfar – All rights reserved. No usage without permission. Dreamstime.